Nearly five years after the lawsuit was filed against AT&T, U.S. District Court Judge Curtis Collier this week ruled that AT&T was not liable to pay the 911 districts more money on charges the districts claim should have been collected from consumers and used for 911 services.
The Hamilton County Emergency Management District sued AT&T in 2011, claiming the telephone giant was not collecting enough fees from business telephone users under the requirements adopted by the Tennessee Legislature in 1998 to help fund enhanced 911 services. Nine other emergency districts, including Knoxville, joined in the suit.
The lawsuit said AT&T had not provided information about the number or type of lines to the local agencies and cited instances in which AT&T failed to bill the required $3 monthly fee on some business lines.
To help pay for 911 services, the state requires telephone companies to collect fees from their customers and turn over such fees to local emergency management districts that handle 911 calls and dispatch police, fire and medical units. Consumers pay a $1.50 monthly surcharge for residential land lines and $3 per month for business lines.
Other fees are also collected for calls over Internet and wireless phones.
In a 55-page opinion, Collier rejected the plaintiff's assertions that AT&T wasn't properly billing consumers the fees that the 911 agencies rely upon for much of their budget. Collier said the claims by the 911 agencies "strains the language of the 911 law" and he claimed any undercharges should have been corrected by audits reviewed by the Tennessee Regulatory Authority.
"None of the plaintiff districts ever sought to exercise its audit right under the 911 law," Collier said, noting that some other phone companies also didn't collect fees or provide detailed billing information in the manner sought by the plaintiffs.
Rick Hitchcock, a Chattanooga attorney who filed the lawsuit against AT&T, said Friday that attorneys "are still evaluating whether we will recommend to the emergency districts to appeal the decision," which the plaintiffs must do within 30 days.
"We and the districts are very disappointed in the ruling and are concerned about its impact on the continued ability of the districts to provide 911 services in an effective way," Hitchcock said.
Even with the dismissal of the AT&T lawsuit, 11 lawsuits involving other telephone companies in Tennessee are pending.
AT&T welcomed the decision, which effectively ends years of court filings that culminated in oral arguments in the case last summer.
"We are pleased with the court's decision, and believe it is well supported by the record in this case," AT&T Senior Public Relations Manager Cathy Lewandowski said Friday.
Last year, a new law changed the way funds raised from telephone fees are transferred to 911 districts across Tennessee. Previously, the phone companies provided the fees directly to the districts, but under the 2015 law such fees are paid to the state, which then allocates the 911 fees to districts across Tennessee.
Contact staff writer Dave Flessner at dflessner @timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.